For myself, I often find myself explaining that yes, I do have a day job which supports my fiction habit, as I like to call it, but that day job is also writing. In the past three years, I've built a career out of freelance content writing. My byline is rarely visible, but I've written blog posts, website content, and even ghostwritten a few serial romance novels. I've supported my family with my writing for a couple years now which, I have to say, is a pretty cool feeling.
What I find, however, is that a lot of the advice I see around the Internet feels pretty outdated. It offers suggestions like trying to write a column in your local newspaper, offering to create a newsletter for a local business, or approaching people with pitches like "I happened to notice xyz errors on your website, and I'd love to help you fix this!"
None of this worked for me, at all.
When I set out to build my writing career, I had a 9-to-5 job that supported my family. I had a degree in English, and free time in the evenings, once my kids were in bed. I had health insurance through my day job. At first, I just wanted an excuse to call fountain pens and bottles of ink a tax deductible expense. After a year, I really looked at the money I was bringing in, and realized that I could make more at home, spending time with my children, than I currently was working 9-to-5.
Now, I can't guarantee that what I did to build my successful career will work for anybody else, but since I've rarely seen my experience written about, it seems worth writing down. I hope that this is useful for you, and if so, that you tell me about it!
Step One: Get used to writing online.
Self evident, right? If you want to make a career out of writing online, you need to know how to write online. It's not like your college professor, or your high school professor, or your journalism teacher taught you. Online writing is usually less formal, but the rules that do exist are even more strict.
I spent three years writing blogs for myself on different topics, but where I really got used to the ins and outs of communicating online was in a set of forums. For two of those three years, I was a moderator, which forced me to really pay attention to the different ways that words affect people when they're written instead of spoken.
Step Two: Get a byline somewhere, anywhere.
My first "paid" writing gig was with Examiner. I'm putting paid in passive aggressive quotes there because I wrote for them for a year, and maybe made enough for a pair of fancy coffees at the local coffee shop. Maybe.
But I was able to parlay my experience on that very specific forum into a not-particularly desired gig on Examiner, and that gave me a byline. It also gave me experience in how to share my articles and blog posts on social media. I got to experiment, in a very low pressure way, with how to find topics that would interest my friends, get them to share my posts, and what drove traffic.
Step Three: Embrace the content mills.
Content mills have a horrible reputation among American based writers, and while I don't blame them, I also roll my eyes at some of the things people say about them. Yes, content mills are generally populated by mediocre writers and editors. Yes, you will be paid vastly less than you want to be paid. I seriously doubt you could write enough through content mills in the U.S. to support a family. If you were cool with cheap ramen, and don't live in a city, you could probably support yourself.
This was the fast-food restaurant phase of my writing career, my version of going to night school while I worked all day long. What I learned in the content mills was that people were less concerned with the kind of quality I used to produce for writing professors, and more interested in fast, clean copy that was likely to spark viral interest.
Step Four: Seek out independent clients
There are a number of platforms out there that are dedicated simply to bringing together freelancers and clients; Elance and Upwork (formerly oDesk) are probably the most well known. Again, many freelancers I know hate these platforms with an intense passion, but I've had great success with them, and in two years, I've only had one instance where I was unable to collect payment for work that was completed.
Step Five: Consider working with marketing agencies
These days, I have four main clients: one agency, two independent clients that I found through freelancer postings, and one regular client through Upwork. I take occasional one-off projects to write website copy or ghostwrite a quick story if the price is right or my kids need a new winter wardrobe, but mostly, these four clients pay my bills.
Zero to success in three years. When I consider that around six months ago, I dropped all of my romance/erotica ghostwriting clients in order to focus solely on content writing, I'm even more pleased with how this has gone.
I almost never get a byline these days. I'm contractually forbidden from pointing at books I've written or websites I've created. But my family eats reasonably well, and we are making ends meet. And I have the money I need to support my fiction habits.
When I see established freelancers who came up through print media telling newbies to hold out for jobs that will pay them $50 an hour, I want to scream. Those jobs may exist, but I've never seen them. The fact is that the global economy has, for better or worse, reduce the prices that businesses need to pay for mid-range writing content. I could probably hold out to try and work for some of the jobs that pay that well, but I'm more than content to write for the people who want a great page, but don't necessarily need it to be the most amazing page on the block. I don't want to spend that kind of time, and they don't want to spend that kind of money. We get along just fine.
What about you? What's the best--or worst!--piece of advice you've ever gotten as a freelancer?